Sunday, December 14, 2014

Talk at the U/U Church Sunday, December 14, 2014: We Are the Ones We've Been Waiting For

   By Diane Peel
First of all, I would like to thank some people.
My Mom, who told me to read the Bible one chapter a night, all the way through.
So I did. Twice. The begets were no fun.
Many anthropologists, whose  work taught me that there are lots of ways to be human.
The Rev. Bob Castle and all the folks of the NEK Peace and Justice Group who gave me something to aspire to.
The activists of  Occupy Wall Street, who suggested the final piece in the puzzle,
and all my dedicated, hardworking slightly nutty friends at The 99, who are angels in disguise.
   In graduate school at the University of Arizona I completed all-but-dissertation for a doctorate in anthropology with a specialization in archeology. Later  I returned to school for a nursing degree. Although I work as a nurse, I'm still an anthropologist too.
 A few years ago I did some research for a book to be  called "The Worship of Wealth".
I never wrote the book, but the research was enlightening.
   I wish I had hours to explain the idea I'm presenting today, but probably you're glad I don't. So I'm just going to present it without much background. So here we go.
   I have some very bad news for you. The hierarchical or “many levels of power” structure which we have been using for the last several thousand years to organize our increasingly large population is doomed to result in increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and the enslavement of the many.
This will happen no matter what label you put on the system, whether democratic, monarchy, socialist or theocracy. It will happen no matter who you elect to public office. To imagine the endpoint of this evolution, and how awful it will be, look to many great pieces of dystopian literature written over the last century. In this world, those who do not serve the purposes of  elite will be expendable. This will include anyone who is ill or slow, anyone with different ideas, anyone who complains, anyone who for any reason can.t make the competitive cut. It could be you.
   The only outcome worse than this scenario is the one where people get fed up and try to violently throw off the yoke of the oppressors, resulting in societal breakdown and the rise to power of  whoever has the biggest guns. A lot of people suffer and die and the new elite look pretty much like the old ones.
   So those of  you looking for the savior who will turn the tide of society away from increasing inequality toward greater equality, whether elected or brought to power by some other means, might as well forget it. Within our current hierarchical structure, such efforts slow down the inevitable, but they don't stop it.
   Now that you're thoroughly depressed, I'll tell you the good news. We can fix this.
   An anthropologist went to study native people in South Africa, many years ago, when there still were relatively unaffected people in the world. He was talking to a group of people  and eager to get started on describing the group's social structure, he asked if there was a headman he could talk to. There was silence, and then laughter. Finally one man said, " Well, you can talk to anybody, for we are all headmen over ourselves."
   For most of human history, people managed quite well without hierarchical organization. Key aspects of these egalitarian systems were small group size, horizontal organization and the use of public pressure to enforce sharing. In horizontal organization, people may have different roles but hardly vary at all in status, and individuals and groups link horizontally in space based on ties of  kinship and mutual benefit, such as trading.  Decision-making can take some time, but works OK when group size is usually not more than 30 people.
In the "original affluent society" as one anthropologist called hunters and gathers, there's quite a bit of time to just sit around and talk. 
   Fast forward to settled villages of hundreds of people and an increasing need to cooperate on large-scale joint projects like irrigation systems or newly invented ones like organized warfare.  The development of intensive forms of  food production, required humans to work longer hours than ever before, a trend which just hasn't stopped.
So people did the easy thing. They started to delegate decision-making. So you end up with an emerging second tier of status. Generally those that are given this status are "big producers" whose ability to amass resources and share with others generates a favorable reciprocity balance between themselves and others.  Such "big men (or women)" not only make decisions but also forge ties with other "big men" that speed up the spread of ideas across great distances. Thus hierarchical structures were born. 
  Behavioral  economists are showing, based on various experiments, that most humans are team players. A few are what anthropologists call "aggrandizers". These individuals have a pathological desire for wealth and power. They have little empathy for others. They try to manipulate the system to their own advantage. In small scale societies they are quickly put down by public opinion that enforces notions of sharing. In larger societies two things happen: Because hierarchical organizations have nodes of power through which resources and information flow, aggrandizers are attracted to positions in the hierarchy.
Once there, they make the rules and regulations at cement their power and ability to accumulate wealth. With more wealth, they accumulate more power.
And both because they elite control information and because the system is so large, it's hard for people to discover what these schemers are up to.
   So really there is no way to dislodge them without changing the structure. Until recently hierarchical structure was necessitated by the  restrictions of time and space, even in systems which attempt to disperse power. But the Digital Revolution has changed all that. We may be on the edge of the next great leap forward in human social organization.
   The outline of such a new decentralized structure includes the following:
   Decision making and action take place in small face to face groups  which are tied to place. In cities these are neighborhoods, in rural areas they are villages. Local groups define their own problems and solutions because "one size never fits all."
   Small groups are linked horizontally in a web of ever-broadening circles through digital communication. Communication can happen between any one human and any other human. There are no gatekeepers. Broad access to information  helps foil would-be aggrandizers. 
   Resources and information can flow horizontally throughout the web without ever being directed up through a power hierarchy. 
   Decentralizing the monetary system is a key feature, with institutions like banks becoming non-existent. Digital tally systems can facilitate exchange. Sharing of resources can be partly automated. Shared resources are under local control. Bureaucratic waste and systemic fraud could be largely eliminated.
   Businesses are run for the benefit of employees, as the concept of management vs workers disappears. 
   While this may sound like science-fiction, the seeds of such decentralized institutions already exist. I have a handout listing some of these and you can probably think of more.
  We have become so accustomed to outsourcing control over our lives that we hardly even realize we are doing it. The left believes better government will save us and the right believes a freer market will save us. Some people are waiting for God to jump right in and save us. In fact, none of these will save us. We have to save ourselves, by taking back control of our lives in our neighborhoods.  
   We are  the ones we have been waiting for.
    To do this we will have to overcome a bit of laziness we have fallen into, which is expecting someone else to look out for our neighbors, allowing us to live insulated lives in which their problems are not our problems. Send them to the welfare office, the principal's office  or the food shelf, or call the police and send them to prison. And here lies the second problem: We need to identify who are our neighbors,  and learn to work with them whether we personally like them or not or whether or not they share our world view. Even though you may initially regard this idea with distaste, human evolution has provided something to help you out.
When people cooperate on a  project with others, such as for instance building something or growing something,  the hormone oxytocin is released, causing humans to feel well-disposed towards those they are working with.  Try it and experience for yourself the pleasant rosy glow of shared goals.
    In the handout you will find some ideas for new decentralized institutions that are already in the works that could replace existing hierarchical institutions.
 But remember, we need to get busy right now. The rapid concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few aggrandizers, and the increasing poverty and hopelessness of  everybody else could soon lead to social upheaval.
Possibly the only thing worse than a hierarchical structure is no structure, in the midst of which the most brutal sorts of humans seize power.  There is no time to waste. So pick something you like, there's really something for everyone's inclination, and start thinking about how you could begin building it in your community. Enlist the help of others and it will grow.
Projects like encouraging community gardens, local power production or community money, community justice systems, or encouraging  citizen participation in municipal or town government, and the creation of neighborhood mutual aid groups are revolutionary acts that will  allow us to take back our lives and wrest power from the hands of  pathological wealth seekers.
    Another world  is possible, but it will depend on you.